As Brexit pressures mount, UK PM rallies her party

Under pressure over Brexit and her own leadership, British Prime Minister Theresa May sought to regain the initiative on Sunday by unveiling new policies to woo young voters at her Conservative party`s annual conference.

AFP| Last Updated: Oct 01, 2017, 23:24 PM IST

England: Under pressure over Brexit and her own leadership, British Prime Minister Theresa May sought to regain the initiative on Sunday by unveiling new policies to woo young voters at her Conservative party`s annual conference.

Four months after a humiliating election in which the party lost its parliamentary majority, May admitted "we need to listen to voters".

Her plans to cap university fees and increase help for young people to buy a home are also intended to show she has more to offer than leading Britain out of the European Union.

May`s authority was severely weakened by the June vote and her cabinet remains divided over Brexit, even as negotiations in Brussels move slowly forward.

In an interview marking the start of the four-day Conservative conference in Manchester, north-west England, May insisted her government was behind her.

"What I have is a cabinet that are united in the mission of this government, and that is what you will see this week," she told the BBC.

The popular leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, later called for an end to the "Tory psychodrama", saying it was time to "unite behind our leader".

But commentators will be watching for signs of rebellion, with all eyes on Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. 

His decision last month to set out his own vision of a clean break with the EU, just days before May made a big Brexit speech in Italy, was viewed as direct challenge.

"May needs to get through (the) conference without further damage to her position," said Simon Usherwood, a politics expert at the University of Surrey.May`s promise on university fees is a response to the main opposition Labour party, which is enjoying a resurgence under leftist leader Jeremy Corbyn and which wants to scrap them altogether.

Outside the conference venue in Manchester, Corbyn`s name was chanted by thousands of protesters who gathered to show their opposition to May`s government and to Brexit.

Anti-austerity protesters held up banners saying "Tories Out" and demanding an end to a cap on public sector pay, while across town, pro-Europeans waved banners demanding an "Exit from Brexit".

May used her Florence speech to offer a number of concessions to Brussels in a bid to unlock the Brexit talks.

But her call for a two-year transition period, in which Britain will continue paying into the EU budget, failed to quell the in-fighting among her own cabinet.

It sparked a fresh war of words in the newspapers between allies of Johnson and finance minister Philip Hammond, who fears the economic damage of a sharp withdrawal.Johnson stepped up the pressure again this weekend with an interview elaborating on his "red lines" for Brexit -- notably that the transition period must be kept short.

"Most people can`t understand what this conversation is all about. We left. We voted for that last year -- so let`s get on with it," he told mass-selling tabloid The Sun.

May dismissed reports she felt threatened by her foreign minister, saying on Sunday: "Boris is absolutely behind the Florence speech." 

The prime minister had called the snap election in a bid to boost the Tories` majority, but actually lost seats, leaving them dependent on a small Northern Irish party to stay in government.

As the weeks passed without a leadership challenge, her confidence has grown, and she now says she wants to fight the 2022 election as prime minister.

A YouGov survey of party members for The Times newspaper this week found 71 percent thought she was doing well -- although only 29 percent believe she should stay on that long.

In May`s favour so far has been the lack of a clear successor. 

Johnson`s Brexit intervention appears to have done him no harm, however.

In the YouGov poll he came top of the list of possible successors to May, with 23 percent, while 56 percent described him as a good leader.